Who Put the Politics in Science?

We’ve been ringing our hands over the role of politics in science.

And for good reason.

Politicians and scientists have come to loggerheads over stem cell research, the Morning After pill (also called Plan B) and climate change.

News stories abound over scientists’ dismay that values sometimes lead the charge rather than rationality; that politics trump science.

I argue this is at the heart of the debate over censorship regarding publication of the avian flu research, where researchers found they were able to coax an airborne strain of the virus that could be deployed in lab animals.

An arm of the US government became concerned and asked two prominent journals—Science and Nature—to re-evaluate what materials would be published (the subject of an opinion piece I wrote for The Oregonian http://www.oregonlive.com/opinion/index.ssf/2012/01/should_science_be_censored.html

The argument: if the journals offer too much information, then the recipe for airborne flu could encourage the bad guys to create a pandemic.

Thus, at first blush, it seems that politics is getting in the way of research.

But I think the issue goes deeper.

Science, by its very nature and application, isn’t free of values. Nor does science unfold within a vacuum—there is a context for every scientific decision.

A trenchant example is the case of Terri Schiavo, whom medical scientists agreed was existing in a vegetative state, thanks to devices that helped her stay nourished. In other words, she lacked the cognitive gravitas to be considered a sentient being.

Few were able to muster scientific evidence that Schiavo was not brain dead.

The conflict was not so much about science as it is about values: how do we think of this thing we call life? Who determines when life begins and when it ends?

Similarly, when we row over who controls sales of the Morning After pill, it’s not about science: it’s about values. The pill is currently available with a prescription for women and, when taken, prevents an egg from implanting in the uterus. Technically the pill isn’t an abortion pill and is therefore more acceptable for some folks.

Problem is that the secretary of Health and Human Services overruled the FDA’s recommendation to allow over-the-counter sales of Plan B.

Her actions created a storm of controversy because she was accused of making a political rather than a scientific decision.

The New England Journal of Medicine offered an editorial January 18 titled The Politics of Emergency Contraception, where the authors noted that, “the secretary’s decision to retain behind-the-counter status for Plan B One-Step was based on politics rather than science” and that “we once again have a situation in which political considerations are forming the basis of public health policy — resulting in another sad day for women.”

Bruno Latour argues that “science is always political.”

For a scholarly viewpoint, see http://versita.metapress.com/content/c25727p638v44h55/

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About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. She is enrolled with the Osage tribe.
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